Gifted

Gifted-2017-rev Gifted  (2017)    Fox Searchlight/Drama    RT: 101 minutes    Rated PG-13 (thematic elements, language, some suggestive material)    Director: Marc Webb    Screenplay: Tom Flynn    Music: Rob Simonsen    Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh    Release date: April 7, 2017 (US)    Cast: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer, Michael Kendall Kaplan, John M. Jackson, Glenn Plummer, John Finn, Elizabeth Marvel, Candace B. Harris, Jon Sklaroff, Jona Xiao, Julie Ann Emery, Keir O’Donnell, Brody Rose, Joe Chrest, Kelly Collins Lintz.

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 If the producers were so inclined, the new drama Gifted could be subtitled A Star is Born for the amazing performance by McKenna Grace as a young math prodigy. You’ve probably seen her before. She had small roles in Independence Day: Resurgence and Mr. Church. She did a guest spot on two episodes of Fuller House. She’s also in the when-will-it-finally-be-released horror movie Amityville: The Awakening. Gifted is the ten-year-old actress’ first starring role and it’s crystal clear that she’s got what it takes to be a star. This kid, who oozes personality from every pore, shows incredible strength in how she carries the movie on her tiny little shoulders (with a little help from a more-than-able supporting cast, of course).

 gifted-posterGifted is like Kramer vs. Kramer meets Little Man Tate by way of Good Will Hunting. Grace plays Mary, a first-grader attending public school for the first time. She was raised by her uncle, Frank (Evans, Captain America), who promised his late sister that he’d raise her like a normal child. Mary doesn’t want to go to school; she thinks it’s a waste of time sitting around while her classmates learn the basics. She’s a math whiz who’s already mastered advanced calculus; she’s long past the 1 +1 stage, a fact her bewildered teacher, Bonnie (Slate, Obvious Child), learns when Mary easily solves more complex math problems in her head (no calculator or iPhone needed). She takes it to the school principal (Marvel, House of Cards) who offers a scholarship to a prestigious private school better able to meet the gifted child’s educational needs. Frank turns it down prompting the principal to reach out to the girl’s grandmother Evelyn (Duncan, Birdman), a brilliant mathematician who thinks Mary would be better off in a more challenging environment. She wants the girl to come live with her in Boston. A courtroom battle over custody ensues.

Gifted is corny and predictable yet engaging and effective. It’s the second movie released this year (the other being Hidden Figures) dealing with female math geniuses. Coincidentally, both films co-star the always wonderful Octavia Spencer. In Gifted, she plays the kindly, no-BS neighbor who helps Frank out with firm advice and Friday night sleepovers so he can socialize at the local bar. He fixes boats for a living which, in his demanding mother’s eyes, makes him lazy, irresponsible and unfit to raise her exceptional granddaughter. She doesn’t like his home, the local public school or Mary’s one-eyed cat Fred either. What’s really going on here is that Evelyn never got over her daughter’s suicide. She was also a math genius who spent years trying to solve one of the Millennium Prize problems until she couldn’t take the pressure anymore. Evelyn sees Mary as a way of finishing her daughter’s unfinished work.

 The acting in Gifted is quite good. Evans does a fine job as the uncle doing his best to raise his sister’s child the opposite of how she was raised. But is it really in the girl’s best interests? Is he holding her back by not allowing her the opportunity to reach her full potential? On the other hand, is it a good idea to not allow Mary to just be a kid? Duncan is also good as the cold, demanding grandmother who can’t see past her own interests. Slate is charming as the teacher who predictably becomes romantically involved with Frank. This aspect of Gifted, while expected, isn’t entirely necessary but they’re kind of cute together so it’s all good.

 The best chemistry is between Evans and Grace. You should hear some of the conversations they have. In one scene, she questions him about the existence of God. They joke, argue and negotiate; their love for each other is genuine. You can see it in the way he fights for her and, near the end, how he deals with a crisis involving her beloved cat. It’s great to be reminded that Evans can act without a superhero costume.  In the end though, Gifted belongs to Grace. Mary is beyond precocious. This kid is 7 going on 35. I love some of her facial expressions. She’s a tough little cookie too. The scene where she clobbers a bully on the school bus is classic. My only real complaint about Gifted is the folk-rock songs that keep popping up on the soundtrack. They’re kind of annoying. Aside from that glitch, Gifted is a good movie. There’s never any question regarding the outcome but sometimes predictability is a good thing, especially if it results in a movie as satisfying as this one. 

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